An African Safari

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By waiting until you arrive in Nairobi, you can purchase a safari for a fraction of the price most Americans pay

Let me first suggest why you should try to overcome the heavy financial barrier to this classic travel activity. An African safari in either Kenya or Tanzania comes as close to deserving the term "indispensable" as any trip I know. To drive through immense game parks in which there are no roads, no power lines or telephone poles, no communities, but simply open terrain roamed by hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, giraffes, elephants, cheetahs, monkeys, water buffalo, elephants, and prides of lions, moving and foraging as they did in prehistoric times, when they were alone on this land, is an almost mystical experience that puts human existence into perspective.

You must do it, and thousands of well-off Americans each year do book an African safari in Kenya/Tanzania, spending an average of $3,500 to $4,500 per person and often placing their reservations through American-based companies that have nothing to do with the actual operation of the safari. Rather, many of these firms simply perform a marketing and reservations function, and then pass on the booking to specialists in Nairobi who actually organize the trip, hire the drivers and guides, book the lodges, and supervise the trip from beginning to end. Because the American middlemen have heavy costs for advertising, marketing, and administration, their resulting high prices prevent a huge number of modestly incomed Americans from even considering an African safari.

I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy the very same safaris for which some pay $3,500 to $4,500 for considerably less, and frequently for as little as $2,200, including airfare from the United States. And you can do so simply by purchasing a round-trip ticket to Nairobi and then booking your safari on the spot, either from a local tour operator or through any number of Nairobi travel agents in downtown locations.

Currently, more than 800,000 tourists a year come to Kenya for safaris, and there are quite literally dozens of safaris that depart from Nairobi each and every day of the year. Obviously, these small-group journeys don't always leave full; there are scores of seats on the various vans and corresponding rooms in the game park lodges that go empty. The smart traveler visiting a Nairobi tour operator or travel agent on the spot should be able to find last-minute space at discounts of 30 to 60 percent off the prices normally charged in the States. Sometimes you can bargain for even deeper discounts. And if you arrive with at least three other persons, you'll also find that all of the tour companies will instantly offer to arrange a special van with a guide-driver (and find you two rooms at a game park lodge) at a remarkably low price.

Though you'll be accosted by touts at the airport, already offering cut-rate safari bargains as you step off the plane, wait until you get into town to start your search. It's a good idea to spend at least one night in Nairobi to ensure yourself the best deal - and to be at your freshest for the safari. But if you're immune to jet lag and want to leave the same day, plan on arriving any day except Sunday, when most downtown offices are closed.

Hunting down a safari

You obtain your safari either directly from any number of companies operating them or, if you're anxious to visit only a single firm, from one of the many retail travel agents who each represent multiple tour companies. Both groups have their offices in the commercial center of Nairobi, most concentrated along Standard and Kaunda Streets and adjacent side streets.

The most reputable of the tour operators are members of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO) and will prominently display their membership decal near the entrances to their offices. Among those with the best local reputation are Gametrackers, Kenia Tours & Safaris, Safari Seekers, Southern Cross Safaris, Star Travel & Tour, and Venture Africa. I've listed their street addresses, phone numbers, Web sites, and e-mail addresses in a box accompanying this article. Keep in mind that none of the above has an absolutely spotless record (many things can go wrong on a safari), yet these are the companies that have been repeatedly recommended to me by people I trust.

It may be a good idea to e-mail several tour operators before your arrival to get competing quotes (telephones and faxes in Kenya are notoriously unreliable). Begin by visiting the Web sites of the companies I've listed. A full list of KATO companies can be found at gorp.com/kato. If several packages interest you, send a query to KATO (Kato@africaonline.co.ke) several weeks before leaving, or call them when you're in Nairobi at 225570. They should be able to advise you on the most recent track record of the operator in which you're interested.

Alternatively, you may want to go to any of several local retail travel agencies. The best, according to all my informants, include Bunson Safaris (Pan Africa House on Standard Street, 02/221992, bunson.co.ke), Let's Go Travel (Waiyaki Way, Westlands, 02/447151, letsgosafari.com), and Tour Africa Safaris (Dennis Pritt Rd. Plot No. 355/2, 02/729333).

For a standard and quite comfortable safari, they'll charge you as little as $100 to $125 per day during high season. Paying the lower price for, say, a ten-day, all-inclusive safari (van, guide, lodgings, all meals), and adding round-trip airfare to Kenya for about $1,200, you can achieve a safari, spending a full ten days in the field, for about $2,200, that would easily cost $3,500 or more if purchased in the U.S.

Local safari operators

When calling from the U.S., first dial 011-254-2 to reach Nairobi.

Gametrackers Ltd. Kenya Cinema Plaza, 1st Floor (Moi Avenue), tel. 338927 or 222703, Web site gametrackers.com, e-mail  game@africaonline.co.ke. Kenia Tours & Safaris Ltd. Jubilee Insurance House, 4th Floor (Kaunda/Wabera Street), tel. 223699 or 217671, Web site  gorp.com/kenia, e-mail  kenia@africaonline.co.ke. Safari Seekers Jubilee Insurance House, 5th Floor (Kaunda Street), tel. 226206, Web site kenyaweb.com/safari-seekers, e-mail  safseekers@form-net.com. Southern Cross Safaris New Stanley Hotel (Standard Street), tel. 225255 or 336570, Web site kenya-direct.com/southerncross, e-mail  sxsnbo@africaonline.co.ke. Star Travel & Tours Ltd. New Stanley Hotel (Standard Street), tel. 226996 or 219247, Web site startravel.co.ke, e-mail  startravel@iconnect.co.ke. Venture Africa Safaris & Travel City House, 3rd Floor (Standard/Wabera Street), tel. 219511 or 219888, e-mail  ventureafrica@form-net.com.

Airfares

From New York to Nairobi, airfare consolidators such as Pino Welcome Travel (800/247-6578) and Premier Tours (800/545-1910) can offer round-trip fares for around $1,200 during high season and under $1,000 during low season.

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